Post #6

In The Crisis Caravan, Linda Polman points to the almost 37,000 non-government organizations, or NGOs, and the fallacies and corruption that surrounds them. She points to the system of humanitarian aid itself, and uses specific examples, like that of the aid offered in the stereotypical “developing” countries Haiti, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Goma, to explain how it has failed victims across the world.

From my readings, I have perceived that the principal concerns that Linda Polman raises in her book are:

  1. Humanitarian aid is often not effective because it has become a part of modern warfare strategy.
  2. Humanitarian aid is often not neutral.
  3. Humanitarian aid organizations are often self-serving.

Humanitarian aid is often not effective because it has become a part of modern warfare strategy. 

As touched on many times in Polman’s book, humanitarian aid is being used by members of both sides in their warfare tactics. Refugee camps and hospitals are being attacked by “the bad guys” in the dead of night. Camps are treating both the good and the evil. This, in Polman’s eyes, could be said to prolong wars and create more conflict than they resolve. Polman brings up the question if maybe doing nothing is better than doing something in some cases because of situations like this. This feeds into the next contention.

Humanitarian aid is often not neutral.

Modern humanitarian aid is taking sides. They are often not remaining neutral, like in the old days of the Red Cross. This is sometimes not their fault, because opposition is pressuring them to behave in certain ways. Sometimes, it is impossible for them to remain neutral in order to remain safe.

Humanitarian aid organizations are often self-serving.

Just like any business, humanitarian aid likes to take a cut of the profits it receives. Not only that, but a cycle of taking cuts of donor dollars has been accepted in many situations. An NGO may give money to an agency in the country it is trying to help, who takes 20 percent, and then they give it to hospitals, etc. who also take 20 percent. By the time the aid reaches the afflicted people, it has been downsized incredibly by people taking small cuts of donations along the way.

On page 177 in her book, Polman says that “aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa” because these non-government organizations state that they are trying to save humanity and help the world, but they are often caught up in the three contentions mentioned earlier. These organizations run like businesses. They are corrupted (not every one, however) by the same corruptions that affect corporations and governments. They, however, are able to hide more easily behind a cloak of innocence due to their role in society as the “savior.” And thanks in part to lots of advertising and donor reassurance, these businesses in Mother Teresa’s clothing are often able to easily convince to citizens that their money is being used in a positive way. In some ways, some NGOs’ tactics to gain donor support verge on propaganda.

The media, the public, and governments play directly into NGOs’ role as this wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The media

The media is the liaison of information from these NGOs to the public. They are responsible for showing things that are timely and newsworthy, but that often distorts how the public sees global issues and hinders NGOs in their ability to do things the right way. Some events receive mass amounts of coverage, therefore, NGOs race to be the first and best on the scene, as in Haiti after the earthquake. In order for humanitarian aid to be successful, the media needs to offer a more well-rounded and truly global view of world issues instead of focusing on one event and covering it until its beaten to a pulp, all while ignoring other pertinent issues.

The public

The public needs to be educated. They need to look further into things that what NGOs, the media, and the government presents upfront. The public must ask questions and follow the money that they send to NGOs. The public must be interested in more than sending a $500 check and feeling good about themselves. The public needs to hold NGOs accountable, and most importantly, they must look outside the big issues that draw attention and ask, “What else is going on in the world?” For humanitarian aid to be successful, the public must be interested, curious, and they must care.

The government

The government’s role in making humanitarian aid successful is the most complex out of the three. I believe, from my perception of the contentions in The Crisis Caravan, that the government must be willing to pave the way for NGOs to do their job correctly. Our government must take an interest in global issues that have to do with social responsibility, not just economic plunder. If our government were to support and work directly with NGOs, then they could decide how to use donor dollars in efficient and effective ways. Currently, most of the world’s humanitarian aid is provided by governments. If these governments could work with and for NGOs, then more donor dollars could be allocated correctly, which may reduce some burden on governments to provide for the world. In short, NGOs cannot do everything by themselves. They need a little bit of help and protection in areas so that their aid is not useless, as said above.


Post #6 – Aaron Pellish

Linda Polman’s The Crisis Caravan deals in many complicated ethical issues, but it mostly attempts to accomplish one thing. The book’s principal concern is to format a critical understanding of aid organizations and humanitarian aid in order to examine how humanitarian aid can solve its big problems. She goes on to identify these problems with a great deal of expertise and detail, and demonstrates the problems of non-government organizations in foreign countries and how deeply complicated and well-rooted those problems are.

Among the problems she identified is the clashing between non-government organizations and international non-government organizations that often leads to competitions between the aid groups over who can help the most people. The root of this problem comes from the fact that many organizations see proportional increases in their funding based on the number of people they can claim to have distributed aid to, and that leads to organizations inflating their own statistics to help get more donations and continue to operate in a given region. Polman argues, I wholeheartedly agree, that aid organizations with the goal of helping people in need should not be forced to use their support and aid in the political game of fundraising and organizational pride. Instead, more organizations should be collaborating and working together to help solve the problems in the best ways possible.

Polman also discusses deeply the political problems with an NGO claiming that they are neutral and intend to give aid to whoever needs it. This can lead to a chain reaction of different events which compromise the organizations neutrality and, in some cases, even prolong the humanitarian crisis that the organization is trying to prevent. Polman discussed cases where NGOs gave supplies to the antagonists of a conflict, which helped them to commit further atrocities. Obviously this is a cut and dry example of where NGO politics turns chaotic. But she also discussed how donations are not appropriately distributed to the people who need them. She suggests that less than 10 percent of every dollar donated gets to the people for whom the money was intended. The money can sometimes be siphoned off to local militias, which go on to do things and act on beliefs which the NGO may not condone. In these cases, the NGO gets put in a tough situation, because they are forced to either continue giving aid to a militia who can go on and do whatever they please with the supplies, or they are forced to drop their veil of impartiality and make ethical distinctions about who gets supplies and who doesn’t. Polman contends that the most ethical decision is to drop any claims of impartiality because it ends up creating more grave ethical dilemmas that could be avoided if NGOs gave supplies based on who deserved them.

All of the above arguments are why Polman writes at the end of her book that “Aid organizations are businesses dress up like Mother Teresa.” Admittedly, I think this is an overly critical statement and a generalization, but she makes a strong point in this comparison. She exposes the gap between how an aid organization actually functions and the purpose it claims to serve. Many aid organizations claim to be pure-hearted, sanctimonious organizations that use their money for good as a combatant of evil. But in reality, aid organizations, especially large ones, must make logistical and practical decisions about how they allocate resources, and sometimes those decisions end up benefiting the organization while hurting the people they claim to help. And when an organization does that, it should be criticized more freely.

And that, Polman argues, is the role of journalists. She says that journalism must be unafraid to expose unethical humanitarian aid organizations, just as they would any unethical government organization, because that criticism will encourage NGOs to evolve, improve their resource distribution and cut out any unethical policies. Currently, Polman believes that journalists reflexively avoid questioning the work of aid agencies, and it ultimately hinders both the journalists’ and the NGOs’ credibility. She also calls on the public to be more demanding and transparent of aid organizations, and she calls on governments around the world to assist in creating infrastructures that NGOs can safely operate in so that the NGOs do not have to do it themselves in places where they otherwise would have to.

Post #6


Broadly, Polman discusses the two different philosophies of international aid work that inform how workers decide who to help. Do you treat everyone indiscriminately? Or do you treat people strategically, in an effort to avoid wasting resources or prolonging a conflict? What those questions really get at is whether aid organizations should remain neutral in conflicts. Polman argues that that neutrality has negative effects on conflicts, in some cases prolonging them. She uses her experience in the humanitarian aid crisis in Goma as an example. In some cases, much like in journalism, aid workers don’t realize they are showing their biases through the choices they have to make. So Polman argues that they just give up the charade of pretending to be neutral to begin with.

Voices of America

I don’t think she makes a strong enough case for that though. Her argument relies on anecdotes about her observations in Goma, in which I found her not particularly credible enough to take her thoughts as absolute truth. For one, her argument lacks specificity. This book is too generalized of an argument, lacking in academic rigor and specificity. So in that sense, it makes the book more appealing to an average reader who would maybe be interested in a hot take on aid organizations and enjoy it as an entertaining argument. But I think in general this piece does not provide a thoughtful and academic of an argument.

Toward the end of her book she writes “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa.” This is a fairly typical catchy and provocative statement for a journalist, making you think about something generally thought of as positive like aid organizations in a more critical way. But again she’s dealing in generalities. She argues in this passage about how journalists don’t question aid organizations as much as they would a business. I think that this may be valid for some journalists working in international conflict zones in particular. As a journalist parachuted into a conflict zone, an NGO or aid organization from your country would be a comfortable place to start. You would have an easy access point to sources, filtered through people who understand both you and hopefully the context of the culture you are reporting in. However that filtering process is what she points to as problematic. However, her assumption that journalists often stop there and fail to question or investigate that organization’s work is unsubstantiated. It’s definitely a bias that many journalists must work around – automatically not trusting anything that anyone tells you. But it’s a fundamental part of the job, and on that I think most journalists understand and strive to practice. So since she cannot possibly know the motivations/work habits of all journalists working in all conflict zones all over, one can only assume she is speaking from personal experience. So that furthers my distrust of her as a journalist and a truth teller.

photo: Sven Torfinn, DRC Congo, Goma, North Kivu. November 2012. Displaced people

photo: Sven Torfinn, DRC Congo, Goma, North Kivu. November 2012. Displaced people

She also points out that sometimes journalists are not as independent from aid organizations in these kinds of situations too: “often the journalists reporting on an aid campaign are also financed, or at least accommodated, by one of the aid agencies taking part in the caravan.” While this may be true anecdotally in her life experience, she does not prove that empirically. As a reader, I don’t have any reason to necessarily trust her anecdotes, and she fails to build that credibility in her writing.

I agree with Polman that we the public and we journalists must remain vigilant and critical of humanitarian aid in order to ensure that it is effective. I think governments can also play a role in this in setting specific legal requirements for aid organizations funding in the same way that many push for stricter oversight of political campaign funding. Transparency is the biggest key to success for aid organizations: transparency with journalists so they can relay the truth of the work and its effectiveness to the public and transparency with the governments the organizations work with.

Post #5

As highlighted in my last post, Belgium does not have many issues relating to the their own environment. They tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to being progressive about stopping climate change, reducing emissions and conserving resources. While they do struggle with water pollution and a decreasing amount of green space due to the growth of cities and their population, they tend to handle environmental issues efficiently, especially in comparison to some of their neighbors in Europe and the United States.

In her TED talk, Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey addresses her personal experiences with the connection of environment and humanity through her work as an anthropologist and  with the National Geography Society. She explored how people consider their environments and even more so, how they consider themselves as a part of their environments.

When listening to Dr. Lindey’s talk, I was struck with her ideas about the current state of society. Even in a country like Belgium, where environmental issues are being handled at a relatively good rate of efficiency and effectiveness, I do not believe that they are doing these actions out of a deep connection to their environment or a belief in what Dr. Lindsey recalled as a “fluency of meaning.” It seems as though everything is a race, perhaps even the race to be the most environmentally friendly. That does not mean that what Belgium is doing is not good, I just found it interesting that even the things we tend to do for the environment tend to come from our need to behave a certain way or be successful in the eyes of others.

That thought makes me sort of jaded about the way societies work in today’s world. Dr. Lindsey talked about how we are being sold a lifestyle and told we have to live in certain ways to prove ourselves worthy enough of acclaim and love. I definitely agree that it is this lifestyle, some may argue the “western” lifestyle, has defined our breaking with our environments and our lack of care for it. This consumerist, mass-intake lifestyle has helped fuel industry and economy, but it has come at the cost of the earth and as Dr. Lindsey points out, maybe even our happiness, our self-peace or self-love, maybe even our very souls.

That part of her talk brings forward, in my mind at least, how environmental issues relate to human rights. If we reignite that caring within us, not only for our environment but for our neighbors, for humankind as a whole, we can start solving problems and stop creating them. I think without the sense that our earth and all of the people in it need care, we cannot expect our growing population to survive in the future.

I believe that Farish Noor’s concept of moving outside and away from eurocentrism in “Beyond Eurocentrism” are closely linked to Dr. Lindey’s ideas about the importance of listening to human voices.

Noor argues that the idea of Eurocentrism has been spread throughout the world and that this harms the dignity of non-western cultures. She gives examples of how Eurocentric ideals have permeated societies throughout the world and drown out local culture, such as the British occupation of India. She also claims that in order to heal areas where many cultural and religious ties pit a country or region’s people against one another, western culture has been implemented. She calls it the “lowest common denominator” of an area. I found this notion especially interesting because I feel that it can be seen in Belgium in the issues between Flanders and Wallonia. The English language is being used there as a connection between the two zones, who differ on everything from state of their economies, to language, to political belief. This, however, is helping to squander the cultural capital of both areas, and does not seem to be aiding much in healing the broken relationship between the two areas.

The effects of Eurocentrism may not be most evident in Belgium because it is a European country. And while Belgium does not have any great crimes against humanity or human rights offenses in the recent past, I believe they are experiencing something revolutionary in the amount of Syrian (and other) immigrants that have came into their country. Because Eurocentrism is so deeply rooted in western countries, any immigrant who comes to Belgium must offer up their culture in many ways in order to fit into a new type of society. Some may argue that this is fitting, some might say the opposite. I, for one, would not be surprised to see human rights abuses increase in Europe in general (though perhaps not in Belgium, or at least not only in Belgium) because of the meshing of cultures currently occurring there. The federal government of Belgium will have to decide how it plans to handle this influx of new culture, added onto the fact that they already possess two existing warring cultures within their own borders.


Post #5 – Aaron Pellish

Europe is an interesting example of how to deal with environmental regulations and human rights. France, for example, only has so much wiggle room with which to independently pursue actions that would advance environmental issues and human rights because France is a member of several international organizations which regulate and mediate the ways those actions take form. The European Union has certain benchmarks for energy consumption that each member state must meet, and there is not a lot of room to work outside of that. The United Nations’ chief cause is protecting the human rights of every person in the world and prosecuting those who disobey human rights, and France, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is beholden to the constrictions of UN regulation. So on one hand, France does play a role in dealing with those issues. But on the other hand, France’s role in those issues extends only as far as larger international organizations will allow it.

There is a specific relationship between climate change and human rights that both Elizabeth Lindsay and Sheila Watt-Cloutier mentioned in their TEDTalk and essay respectively. There are many communities in the world which have heightened relationships with the environment. More than just superficially, these communities depend on the environment for their culture, their food, their water, their identity, sometimes their religion, but most importantly their human identity. And when changes in the climate change the landscape or environment in substantial ways, it affects the identity of these people, it affects their heritage, and it threatens to endanger them. As I said in my post last week, I think the idea of connecting environmental threats to personal and cultural erasure of heritage is a very clever persuasive technique, and it works very well on ordinary people who appreciate the importance of heritage in one’s personal identity. But I think that this persuasive technique has ceiling on its effectiveness, and it is unlikely to change the way we act as a society, because it is unlikely to sway the hearts and minds of governments and corporations who are motivated by factors and priorities which have nothing to do with the culture and heritage of minority populations. We’ve seen governments and corporations ignore these pleas for representation from minority populations be willfully ignored in the past, so there is no reason to assume it will work yet again.

In “Beyond Eurocentrism,” Farish Noor talks about the relationship between Western ideology and the various ideologies of the rest of the world and argues that the separation of those ideologies is detrimental to our ability to coexist peacefully in a globalized society. Noor defines eurocentrism as “the emerging perception within the European cultural, historical experience of European identity as good and all other forms as less good or less advanced.” In going beyond eurocentrism, Noor implores Western society to shed this form of elitism, embrace the ideologies of the non-Western world and incorporate them into Western society in order to have a greater empathy and cultural understanding of non-Western nations which are otherwise treated as unsafe, un-advanced, and exotic.

Post #5


Climate change and human rights are interconnected issues. You can’t look at one without considering the other. However, unfortunately much of the dialogue surrounding climate change fails in this regard. In order to convince political and industry leaders that climate change must be addressed in a drastic way now, we need to frame it as a rights issue. Political leaders have the obligation (both moral and legal) to fulfill and protect their citizen’s rights. Now as our world has become increasingly global, those leaders have an obligation to protect the rights of people outside of their nation’s borders.

In her TEDx talk in Maui, anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey talks about how her elders interpreted our relationship to the environment and what advice they have for us today. She says she wanted to bear witness to all the changes around her, which influenced her decision to become an anthropologist. She speaks about her elders in Hawaii and how they dealt with experiencing an “encroaching culture.” She relates this to her experience in Micronesia when a village chief told to slow down. She applies that advice to how our (Western) culture, focused on work and industry, implies that our value as individuals is directly related to our productivity.

At first when I watched this video, I saw how it related tangentially to climate change but did not see how this related to human rights. She talks more about individual advancement as opposed to collective work. But in reflecting on it now, I see how she really was laying the foundation for understanding the basis of human rights – that each individual person has worth and dignity far beyond their economic value.


The main pressing human rights issue in Turkey is the refugee crisis. Turkey has been on the frontlines of dealing with the flow of refugees this past year, with some estimates that the country hosted more than two million asylum seekers last year. The bureaucratic issues with dealing with that large of an influx has meant that asylum seekers in Turkey have little access to health care, housing, education and employment. That is, if they are even allowed to stay in Turkey. Many refugees have been forced out of the country without having completed the proper asylum seeking procedures.


Press freedom has increasingly become a human rights issue in Turkey as well. Freedom House has classified Turkey’s status as “Not Free,” citing a five year decline. Turkish government has created more laws to allow for censorship and increase the amount of legal hoops journalists, especially those critical of the AKP party, have to jump through to deal with these types of lawsuits. The future is not looking very bright on this front either.

“The combination of the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process and crackdown on media and political opponents over the past year spell dark times ahead and take Turkey further away from the goal of being a rights-respecting country,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, the lead Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.


Finally, as for environmental issues, Turkey does not have a strong reputation for being environmentally friendly. A report from a couple of years ago shows that few Turks consider environmental issues a high priority. Some of the major environmental issues in Turkey are air and water pollution. From 1990 to 2011, Turkey’s carbon emissions increased 124 percent, which has come mostly from the energy sector and industry.


As Turkey aims to become a member of the European Union, it has adopted some of the EU’s more advanced environmental policies. Turkey’s Tenth Development Plan in particular is focused on creating more sustainable environmental practices, including a focus on clean water. It remains to be seen how effective this plan will be in accomplishing its goals.